Commemorative causality by Timothy Snyder

12 Jun 2013 12:44 PM | Anonymous

Commemorative causality by Timothy Snyder  Read the full article HERE.


"When we read synthetic histories of the Holocaust, the anti-Semitism-without-a-Holocaust of the 1930s works as dramatic tension, because we already know what comes next. But as causal explanation the political anti-Semitism of the 1930s is clearly inadequate, at best a necessary part of an explanation rather than an explanation itself. The hypothesis that emerges, usually implicitly between parts one and two of a Holocaust history, is that of a surplus of anti-Semitism generated in phase one spilling over to provide the motive force for mass killing in part two. This has enormous literary power, but makes no logical sense. If we assume that anti-Semitism alone is what causes a Holocaust, then there must have been too little of it in Germany in the 1930s rather than too much, because there was no Holocaust in Germany in the 1930s.


A problem of context or setting arises as well. Try to think of a history of the Holocaust that notes that eight million non-Jews were murdered on the lands where the Holocaust took place, while Hitler was in power, before or during the mass murder of the Jews. If this is not mentioned, then the reader lacks the basis from which to enquire about other causal mechanisms of mass killing that might be at work in the time and place.


Just as there was no Holocaust in Germany between 1933 and 1939, there was no Holocaust in eastern Europe during the half millennium when the region was the world homeland of the Jews. This was not for lack of anti-Jewish sentiment. Anti-Semitism was practically ubiquitous in eastern Europe; for precisely this reason it cannot logically be seen as the crucial cause of an explosion of murderousness that began in the summer of 1941. It is more or less a constant, whereas at that moment there are some striking variables: the destruction of east European states, during a double occupation by Germany and the Soviet Union, after the failure of initial German plans for a Final Solution and so on. So much was in motion as the Holocaust began that east European anti-Semitism, important though on this timescale static, is an improbable candidate for the major cause. During a given week in 1941 or 1942 more Jews were murdered in eastern Europe than in all historical pogroms combined. Clearly the Holocaust was an event of a different order than traditional anti-Jewish violence and requires a different kind of explanation.


Although east European anti-Semites certainly took part in the Holocaust, it is not clear that they were much more likely to do so than others. The salience of local anti-Semitism depended, of course, on the drastic military, political, economic and social change brought by occupation and especially by double occupation.


The lack of interest of historians of the Holocaust in the history of the lands where Jews lived and died is symptomatic of commemorative causality.


The cost of ignoring factors besides anti-Semitism and ignoring historical setting when anti-Semitism is the subject, is a startlingly incomplete public understanding of the Holocaust. This is all the more startling, precisely because this incomplete understanding is as or more prevalent among those who read books about the Holocaust, watch documentaries and otherwise seek out historical perspectives on it. The cost of using east European anti-Semitism as the narrative glue that holds together shaky explanations of the Holocaust is the maintenance of the familiar civilizational gradient between West and East."

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